Maintaining improvements in health and safety performance – Part of the Health & Safety supplement

Peter Woolgar, Principal Inspector and Head of Manufacturing for HSE, highlights the industry’s pressing need for a greater focus on health and safety during maintenance – and for a culture of strong leadership and workforce involvement in ensuring a safe and healthy workplace.

The most recent injury statistics released by HSE are good news for UK manufacturing, showing significant reductions in fatal, major and over 3 day injuries reported by the industry between April 2009 and March 2010.

This is undoubtedly encouraging, but far too many people are still suffering needlessly as a result of incidents at work. Although the number of people killed in manufacturing has fallen from a previous average of 33 per year – 22 people still lost their lives. And while 2010 saw a drop on the previous year of 11% and 16% respectively in the number of major injuries such as amputations or broken bones and in the number of over 3 day injuries – the industry still reported 3,863 major and 14,678 other injuries.

We should also bear in mind that these statistics relate to a period when manufacturing was hard hit by the downturn. History has shown us that accident rates rise as industry moves out of a recession and as work starts up again or increases pace. Whether this is a result of the industry working closer to its capacity, or because experienced workers have been lost to industry and replaced by new workers – we don’t want the latest improvements in injury statistics to be lost in the economic recovery.

Analysis of serious incidents in manufacturing shows that the same things are still maiming and killing people – many of them related to production processes as one would expect However, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA ) estimate that as many as 20% of workplace accidents are actually connected with maintenance operations. Across Europe, about 10-15% of fatal accidents at work are maintenance-related and HSE estimate that this is probably closer to 25-30% in British manufacturing.

Common examples of the causes of serious incidents include things like machinery being operated with guards removed; electrical supplies not being isolated and locked off while cleaning blockages or spillages or carrying out repairs; heavy lifting operations being undertaken too close to where people are working; use of equipment that has been poorly maintained, or incorrect use of equipment. Other incidents involve the hidden things that only maintenance workers get involved in, often out of hours, like accessing equipment in out of sight places, and working at height or in confined spaces.

The HSE website provides some cautionary tales about incidents in maintenance. In December 2010 HSE prosecuted three companies following serious incidents: In one, a subcontractor fell more than five metres from a ladder after suffering an electric shock when he made contact with a live three-phase 415v conductor to the overhead crane that he had been about to repair.

The company had not marked it or isolated it prior to the subcontractor starting work. In another, an agency worker died after being struck by the moving parts of a cut and crease machine that he was maintaining.

The machine was started by another worker whilst the agency worker was inside the machine.

In the third, a worker received serious injuries when he became entangled in a conveyor system at the exit from a trim saw. He had been attempting to free jammed timbers from the conveyor when it moved unexpectedly.

What’s really concerning about these incidents is that none of them are about new technology with complex new hazards – they’re everyday stuff that everyone, if they took the time to think, should be able to anticipate and avoid.

To help address the numbers of maintenance related incidents, in 2010 EU-OSHA launched a two year ‘Safe Maintenance’ campaign, promoting safe and healthy workplaces by encouraging an integrated and structured approach to maintenance. To support the campaign, HSE published a ‘safe maintenance health check’ questionnaire on our website – www.hse.gov.uk, prompting companies to consider questions like ‘Do we know where all our confined spaces are?’ ‘Do we have isolation locks for the high risk pieces of machinery, and do we always use them?’, and ‘Do we know where all the asbestos is in the building?’ The purpose of these questions was not that they should result in simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. They were deliberately designed to be difficult to answer – and to be used by managers, working with their maintenance staff, as prompts to self examination and discussion, to help them in reaching a real understanding of the risks faced in maintenance.

Most managers want to be reassured that the health and safety arrangements and management systems they have put in place are effective. Many monitor accidents and plot trends, but this on its own is not enough – it only shows what has happened after the event, known as a ‘lagging’ indicator.

Companies should also monitor ‘leading’ indicators, which demonstrate how well systems are working before an incident occurs. This should not be a tick box approach but a sensible and considered look, concentrating on the most risky machines, processes or activities. Using a balanced scorecard of leading and lagging indicators is gaining increasing acceptance in manufacturing companies.

EEF (The Manufacturers’ Organisation) have developed a version of this tool which was piloted by its members in 2010, and which will be available to anyone from February 2011 on their website – www.eef.org.uk. It’s not the only version, but it’s recent, it’s been tested by manufacturing companies, and it’s free.

Sharing this sort of good practice initiative is something that we in HSE always try to encourage, but we believe that their ultimate success, or otherwise, remains dependent on them being supported by a culture of strong leadership and of worker involvement and consultation.

Leadership can take a number of forms. At a basic level, it might be getting senior staff to make it their business to check what’s happening on the shop floor during maintenance work. It shows that management are truly interested, and allows them to check that the systems they have put in place are actually used, and that they allow the work to be done while protecting those doing it. Maintenance work is often seen simply as a disruption to normal service, but it is fundamental to the integrity of every manufacturing system and to the health and safety of workers. A similar view can be taken where there is interruption to production because of a faulty process, equipment blockage or a need to clear a spill. Good leadership is not just about getting the plant up and running as soon as possible. It’s also about ensuring that remedial activity is done in the right way – the safe way.

Worker involvement and consultation is also key in getting health and safety right. Operating or maintaining machines or processes day-in, day-out, gives workers an intimate knowledge of their plant, the problems, the ‘work-arounds’, and very often the best way of doing things. Harnessing that knowledge is a shortcut in itself to effective and sensible solutions, providing a real improvement in productivity, and health and safety.

HSE would like managers in manufacturing to take a hard and realistic look at what you do and how you do it. Target the key significant risks first, those where people could be seriously injured, or worse, and consider if you have significant sources of serious or chronic ill health. Involve your workforce in helping you to identify the hidden potential problems. If you find you have too much work to do, be sensible about it – prioritise and plan, again involving your workforce in helping you to reach the right decisions.

If you need professional help to evaluate risks or identify solutions you might want to consider employing someone from the Occupational Safety and Health Consultants Register (OSHCR).

This new register is being introduced in response to the Government commissioned report on UK health and safety, “Common Sense, Common Safety” – published in October 2010. The register is currently being populated and will soon enable you to access consultants who can offer you advice to help you manage health and safety risks. To be on the register consultants must have met certain standards within their professional bodies and have committed to providing sensible and proportionate advice.

If your review shows you’re doing all the right things – that’s great. But maybe it’s time for a fresh approach, time to show management leadership and innovation. Can you be part of the wider health and safety solution – helping, for example, your key suppliers or contractors in meeting their health and safety obligations? After all – it’s only by everyone playing their part that we can stop manufacturing workers becoming another HSE statistic.